Arthur scowled at the adorable little pink bunny that was staring up at him. "What are you looking at, Flopsy?"
The bunny giggled at him and hopped away. The rest of the landscape was a perfectly modern city. There were the appropriate skyscrapers and litter in the corners of the gutter. The streets were washed with the glow of a fading sun. It was a perfect evening city that could have been New York or London or one of a hundred big cities across the country.
Except for the bunny and the bluebird that insisted on sitting on his shoulder. To add insult to injury the puffy little bluebird was whistling at him. It was whistling a fairly recognizable rendition of "L'Accordéoniste." Arthur sighed heavily. He stroked the cartoon bird with a finger. "I hate you," he told it. "And your little friends with the sewing kits who want to put up pink streamers in the tree. You do not belong here."
The bird ignored him the way the cartoons always did when he wasn't on an actual job. He walked through the city streets, the bird running through a random song-list. There were songs that he didn't even consciously remember in the snippets. He danced along with "Singing in the Rain." It wasn't as though anyone would ever actually know. Yes, he had the level down cold. Time to banish his little buddies. Flopsy peered around the side of a trashcan. He sighed and knelt down for her to pick her up for a quick cuddle. "You guys know that you can't be here next time. It's business time." Flopsy put two paws on his face and kissed his nose. The bird chirped twice and flew off. Flopsy disappeared behind the trashbins.
Arthur put a gun to his head and woke himself up.
Ari picked up the picture of the bunny that was sitting on the table between her and Eames. "Oh, he's adorable," she cooed.
"She," the Forger corrected. "Please note the large eyes with long lashes and the bow around her neck."
"He could just be a very gender-fluid rabbit," she defended.
Eames shook his head. "I am not getting into that sort of conversation with you. Did you get the last of the layer designed last night?"
"Arthur went under with it about ten minutes ago." She picked up the coffee she'd run out to get and offered him one. "When did you get here?"
"Just a few minutes ago. Are these my files?"
"No, your files are on the other side of the table with the big E on the sticky note," Arthur said. He rolled down his sleeve, but didn't bother to fasten it. Ari still wasn't sure if he wore long sleeves to hide his track-marks or if it was to hide something else. She'd taken to wearing bracelets herself.
"I like this chair better."
"Are you five?" Arthur pushed the rolling chair with his foot. Eames grinned at him.
"You don't like rolling chairs. You can't balance on them."
"Which is why I'm using a rolling chair. It gives you fewer opportunities to annoy me." Arthur sighed. He rolled Eames out of his way and dragged the straight-legged metal chair to his side of the table. "Happy?"
The forger sipped his coffee and smirked. "You're always so obliging, Darling."
Arthur picked up the picture of the bunny. He flicked his lighter open and lit the corner on fire.
"No!" Ari cried. She reached for the picture, but Arthur moved it out of her reach.
"Did you disable the smoke alarms again?" Eames asked mildly.
"The building's abandoned. They were torn out for the copper years ago." The floor was half plastic-wrap and mostly metal studs. The "sleep room" was actually dry-walled, but not mudded. Plywood was scattered in the corners. There were large windows and Arthur had a small solar generator in the corner of the room that ran their lights and charged their electronics.
"Why do you do that? The bunnies are adorable."
"You like those damned birds too, I bet." Arthur sneered.
"They're cute! What is wrong with you?"
"Did Eames slip you decaf this morning? No, I know, he bought plain donuts again."
"Eames likes having balls," Arthur replied. His tone was dry. "But he did put bacon on my salad yesterday."
"Oh, the horrors! The sulfites!"
"The salt. The pork." He stuck out his tongue like toddler. "Ew."
"So wonderfully crunchy. Bacon is yummy. But seriously, what is with the hate on cartoons? Do you have some deep-seated Disney issues?"
He picked up a file, seemingly just so that he could look at her over it. "My name is Arthur Darling. You figure it out."
"Right." She rolled her eyes at him. "Your ID's say Gold. Oh, crap. Are you Jewish? Is that why you hate bacon?"
Arthur closed his eyes. He took one deep breath, then another. Eames was bent over laughing at their interactions. "Please, luv, stop. I can't breathe."
Arthur swatted the top of his head with the folder. "Ari, just drop it."
She held a hand up in surrender. "Fine. Fine. Don't tell me pertinent information. See what happens."
"If you dare to jump into a dream without permission, you'll be dead faster than a wounded antelope. My mind is not forgiving."
Eames put up a hand. "I will tell you that it is correct. It took me, what? Five years before your mind stopped killing me immediately?"
"If you'd stop just popping in, you wouldn't get killed." Arthur sniffed. "The layer looked good. It should work. We'll do a run through tomorrow."
Eames rested his chin on his folded hands. "You are going to let me join you tonight, right?"
Arthur frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"For dinner and afterwards? You're not going to hole yourself up here and research all night?" Eames added puppy-dog eyes.
Arthur looked at him and then around the room. "Did Ari leave?"
"About three hours ago. You said goodbye."
"Oh. Is this your way of saying you're hungry?" He narrowed his eyes at the Englishman. "You know you have to be more blunt than that."
"Arthur, I'm hungry. I'm tired. I want to get dinner and then go to bed. The data is not going anywhere. We'll practice with social skills later. Come along, then, time for food."
"Let me just finish this."
"No." Eames' voice was sharp. "You've been pushing me off for an hour."
Arthur grimaced. "Sorry." He put the laptop away and closed his files. He stood up and groaned. "Maybe we can spar in the morning?"
Eames chuckled. "Getting old, luv."
"Fuck off, Mr. Eames."
Arthur stripped down to his teeshirt and boxers. He stretched. "Was earlier an attempt to ask to go under tonight? Or were you looking for sex?"
Eames rolled his eyes. His mouth was so full of toothpaste foam that he looked like a rabid dog. Arthur's lips twitched. "I'm sorry, we haven't gone over body language recently, I'll need you to verbalize."
Eames spat into the sink. "There is no way that either of us is up for anything more than sleep after that dinner. Though maybe in dreamtime." He seemed to consider that as he rinsed his mouth. "Ten minutes of dreaming and then a proper rest," he announced. "Because I have decided that the sane one of us should make these decisions."
"Ari's not here," Arthur pointed out. He opened the shiny metal suitcase that had been his companion for years. "Do you ever miss normal dreaming?"
"No. Do you even remember normal dreaming?"
Arthur snorted. "I was ten. I barely remember what I did for my birthday that year."
Eames shook his head. "This is why you have difficulty with these pesky human interactions," he chided. He ruffled Arthur's hair until it stood up in random spikes. "Much better. You need to warn the world that you're as prickly as a porcupine."
"Sometimes I can't remember why I put up with you."
Eames kissed him softly. "Just get into bed."
"Oh, is that why I put up with you?"
"It's as good a reason as anything else." The bed was a queen, so there was room enough to put the PASIV between them. Arthur put the line in for Eames, as he usually did. "You Dreaming at ten explains a disturbing amount about your mind."
Arthur didn't reply, just put the needle into his own arm, set the timer and released the Somnacin.
Eames stepped back from the pink bunny that was standing in front of Arthur. He'd been on the receiving end of her teeth far too many times. Flopsy stared at him with big eyes and curly lashes. Arthur reached down and picked her up by one of her front arms as though she were stuffed. "We like Eames, remember? Even when he is his boring self and not in character." He held her up to look her in the face.
Flopsy stuck her tongue out at Eames as if to say "he's mine, nah-nah." She hung happily from Arthur's grip, feet bouncing slightly. Arthur went to the front door of the mental cabin. He opened it and five round, happy, cartoon birds flew in. Two of them had a blue ribbon between them which they wrapped around Eames' throat in an oversized bow that felt like the merest hint of silk. "Flopsy, you guard the perimeter. You menaces, outside. And I'm pulling the shades on all of you." He set Flopsy down on the ground gently. She giggled and hopped away. The birds preened Arthur's hair on the way out.
"Sorry about that," Arthur said. His cheeks were a becoming pink. "I must be more tired than I thought."
"Never apologize for being relaxed enough to let Flopsy show up," Eames chided. "I prefer that you're comfortable." He pulled Arthur into a hug. "Besides, she didn't bite me this time."
Arthur snickered at that. He fussed with the blue bow. "I can't decide if this means you're my present or if I'm supposed to do something else with it."
"It feels like that silk scarf you got me for my birthday last year." Arthur was warm and relaxed against him. Eames kissed him. "And I always enjoy the beds you dream up for us."
"You just want a stepstool to get into your bed. You don't fool me. Anything's better than this current hotel." Arthur untied the bow and let it drift to the floor. "Now, let's see what we've got in the bedroom today. I'm thinking greens and silk."
Eames returned Arthur's sleepy nuzzle with a kiss to his forehead. "Come along, Darling, time for coffee."
"Coffee?" Arthur blinked at him. "Where?"
"At the little coffee shop downstairs that you've fallen in love with. My treat."
"Good bribe." The pointman snuggled more into Eames' side. "Warm."
Eames bit his lip. Most people only ever saw Arthur wake up from dreams or in an emergency. They never got to see him cuddly and coffee-deprived. It was almost a shame that they were expected. "Ari is expecting us at nine to go over the levels."
Arthur grumbled, but rolled out of bed. There was a bruise on his thigh about the size of a baseball that Eames hadn't noticed the day before. And another on his back where his teeshirt rode up. "You'll get the coffee right?"
"Arthur, are you hiding bruises again?" Eames tried for stern, but just came out fond. "Getting into fights?"
"Needed quick operating capital." Arthur stretched. He rolled his head and his neck made an audible pop. "And we need a new hotel because I think this place is trying to kill us."
Eames shook his head. "Disgustingly frothy and sweet coffee or blacker than your soul?"
"Blacker than my soul. My head is stuffed with cotton today." Arthur rubbed at his eye with the back of his hand. He looked over-tired.
"We can call Ari and reschedule. Take the day to sleep?"
"No, we're on a timetable. I can sleep when I'm dead."
Ari stared at the body of the man laying on the floor. Blood seeped slowly from the wound in his forehead. She shook. Eames looked up from where he was pawing through the man's clothing. He had latex gloves on that he'd stolen from Arthur's briefcase. "Destroy everything that's on paper. Break up the models. I'll take care of the body. Pack up Arthur's computre."
Ari swallowed hard, but did what she was told. "Is the job over?"
"No, just on hold until we retrieve Arthur. He managed to get me a message and they didn't take his electronics. It's personal or it's a dangerous job interview."
"Job interview?" Her voice spiraled up. /No, you will not become hysterical,/ she told herself. "I'd refuse any job that kidnapped me."
Eames shot her an indecipherable look over his shoulder. "I wouldn't be so sure of that, luv. Just keep a level head. Most people know you're one of Arthur's." He turned back to his search.
She didn't really want to know any more. She fed paper through the shredder that Arthur had under the the corner table. She stepped on the models she'd created, shattering the foam into many pieces. Her heart twinged at the loss of something that she hadn't even gotten to see fully realized yet. She packed up the pieces of foam-board into one trashbag. The paper went into a cardboard box. There was far less than she'd expected. "Where are Arthur's files? Your files?"
Eames held up a room card key and a set of car keys. "The files are in our hotel room. Arthur was... less than himself this morning."
Ari frowned. "You think he guessed something was going to happen?"
Eames didn't say anything. "Let's just say that Arthur sometimes operates on a subconscious level. And I've learned to trust his instincts. He didn't bring his files, so I didn't pick up mine either."
"You're sharing a room?"
"Let's set the nice bonfire, then go find our Arthur, shall we?"
Eames yanked the line out of the man on the left and slapped him. He didn't wake, but his eyes opened. Eames shook him, but he remained loose, eyes unfocused. Ari carefully disconnected the man on the right. Arthur was laying on the bed between them, blindfold across his eyes and one arm tied to the bedside table instead of the headboard which was attached to the wall.
Eames took his time shaking and smacking the other captor, just for the stress-relief. If Arthur had done what he thought, neither man would be waking up soon. He taped them together, piled like cord-wood in the corner. "I'm going in after Arthur. You can come or not."
Ari looked at the men. She looked at Arthur. He was mussed, Eames noted. Her frown deepened. "I'll come with you. Just in case."
The City they found themselves in was full of towering glass and wood structures painted with pink and red light. The streets were cobble-paved. The trees were neatly manicured and lined the weaving streets. "There isn't a square line in this street," Ari murmured. She drew closer to Eames. He patted her arm absently. She squinted at the trees. "Are those trees ... do they have faces?"
"Of course they do." Eames stepped forward. He wasn't wearing a suit, but rather a tunic of deep red with black pants and boots. He had a belt at his waist with an empty sheath. She looked down at herself and was pleased to note that she was in a similar outfit. Her hair was cut shorter than in real life and she didn't have anything on her belt but a small pouch. "Sir Tree," Eames said carefully, "I'm looking for Arthur."
Ari nearly jumped. She bit her lip. The tree seemed to bend towards Eames. It lifted a branch. She thought it was to strike and grabbed Eames' arm. "Prince Arthur rests in the tower, Sir Eames. He will be most relieved to see you, rather than the suitors his father sent."
Eames nodded. "Thank you. Come, Squire Ari." She didn't release his arm. "Arthur's projections like me. And they shouldn't harm you, if you're with me. He's expecting us, I think, but he'll have set the maze to trap his kidnappers. If they really are from his father, that will be rather in character, I have to say."
"Yes." Eames' eyes scanned the bottoms of the buildings and the small, dark alleys that overflowed with what seemed to be junk heaps with eyes. There was a flash of pink and Eames followed it. He knelt down next to a bank of trashbins that were actually a Devil's Fork. "Flopsy, sweetheart, come here."
The pink bunny fixed him with a frightened stare. Her front paw was obviously broken, and there were open wounds on her body. Her curly lashes drooped. She limped forward. "Squire Ari has bandages in her pouch," Eames stated. Ari opened her bag, sure that they would be there. She handed him rolls of bandages and tape. He produced a pair of small scissors to cut them. He tied them on, creating a sling for her paw and stopping the bleeding. He looked around. "Do you have a scarf in your bag?"
Ari looked in. "It seems that I do." She pulled out the long scarf. Eames created a sling and set Flopsy into it, so that she rested near his heart. She pawed at his laces on his shirt. Ari looked at the picture and tried not to laugh. "Will you introduce me?"
"Lady Flopsy, this is Squire Ari. She will be helping me on my quest." The black eyes fixated on her and Ari froze. She knew those eyes. They studied her with the same frightening intensity as Arthur had when she asked him to teach her how to shoot.
"Hello, Lady Flopsy." Ari dropped an inelegant curtsey. The rabbit nodded once, then closed her eyes. Eames put a protective hand over her and dropped a kiss on the top of her head.
Eames couldn't help but cradle Flopsy with his arm as they walked. He had never seen her this hurt. He bit back on the terror that threatened to make him lose focus. He frowned. He looked at the projection who was sitting on the wall. The young man looked back from under the hood of his sweatshirt. "Need a smoke?" the man asked.
"I'm good. Thanks."
The young man shrugged. "You're Eames," he said.
"Might want to find the weapon that goes in that sheath before you try to get to the tower. Just a suggestion." The young man started to fade away like the Cheshire Cat.
"Brandon," Eames said. The young man gained solidity. "Which way should I go to find the weapon?"
Brandon laughed, white teeth shining in the shadow of his hood. "Follow the right path of course." He faded away to a smile.
Eames studied the streets. There were very few human projections traveling through the city right now. His eyes tracked the layers of light and dark. There were paradoxes stacked upon paradoxes. "Oh bloody Hell," he snarled. "Those fucking idiots."
"What?" Ari's voice was strained.
"When you think of Arthur's mindscape, what do you think of first?"
"Sunlight and wide windows. Modern, smooth lines, with touches of deep wood and plush carpets. Men in business suits and women in pencil skirts."
"Lack of imagination is his hallmark. His buildings are realistic. His people normal. If you wanted to discomfort him, what would you do?"
"Put him in places that weren't predictable." She paused. "Is this actually his mindscape? Not something they created for him?"
"Arthur loves paradoxes. He loves puzzles and mazes. Those idiots put some sort of hallucinagin into the mix. They were trying to send him on a bad trip in the middle of his dreams. They believe in his reputation." Eames shook his head. "We get the benefit of Arthur on one of his flights of absolutely terrifying fancy. When he's relaxed, there are singing bluebirds and over-stuffed furniture. But he developed his subconscious security when he was ten. There's also gravity pits and Acme products scattered about."
"So we're stuck in a nightmare?"
Eames shook his head. "I've not explained it well. Arthur created his own maze and pulled his attackers in with him. They were trying either a very foolish extraction or they really are from his father and were trying to incept him against me again."
Ari raised her brows, but didn't say anything for a long moment. "You know how to get through the maze?"
"I do. But first, there's something we need to find." Damn them. Damn them to whatever Hell Arthur had created for them. His lover had felt the need to hide his weapon. Flopsy was injured. Arthur had to be frantic. Eames could almost feel his anger pulsing in the streets. He looked across the skyline. The largest tower covered with vines was obviously their destination. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to turn right. But there was a trick there too. Eames looked at the wall in front of him. He put his hand through it. "Truly, Darling?" he murmured. "Come, Ari. Into the wall and turn left."
"Didn't the projection say right?"
"No, the right path, not right. And if you've watched the movie Arthur stole this idea from, you know that turning left takes you directly to the castle." Ari gripped his hand and followed him into the pitch blackness of the portal. They stepped out in the midst of a forest surrounding the tower. Brandon was sitting in the tree closest to them.
"Huh. You really must know the brat. Ever considered blackmail?" Brandon leaned back until he was hanging off the limb by his knees. He had loose, dark hair that hung down like a silken sheet. One of his eyes was blue, the other brown.
"All the time, dearheart."
Brandon took a puff on his cigarette. "Guessing you want to know where the sword is?"
"I'm assuming it's in that lake over there."
"Might be. Might also be in the woods."
"True. Was there a battle?"
"In the woods? Nah. Brat split them up and spiraled them down. Doesn't even realize it yet though. Lady F there won't let anyone in to see him."
Ari's fingers were white where she gripped Eames' hand. He was losing feeling in his fingers. "So, which way should we go?" she asked.
"Your pet's talking. Might want to see to it." The projection faded away.
"This is why you are an architect," Eames fumed. He was about to drag her into the woods just to let Arthur scare her when he saw the bird. Nestled at the base of the tree was Arthur's favorite bluebird. Eames shook off Ari's hand. He knelt down to pick up the little bird. One eyes was gouged out and his wing was broken. The same side of his body as Flopsy's. Eames regretted not checking Arthur for injuries now. He splinted the bird's wing and bandaged his eye. The bird whistled a snatch of the Beatles. "Yes, yes, we're going to help Arthur." He tucked the bird into the sling and Flopsy cradled it. "We need to hurry."
Arthur stalked through the room once more. It was nominally an octagon, but if he walked through a wall, he ended up stepping back out into the room. "Damn it, Flopsy," he muttered. "Where are you?" His head of sub-conscious security should have shown up by now. He knew there were people in his mind-scape. He could feel them, but they couldn't reach him.
Which, granted, was the purpose of sub-conscious security. It didn't do him any good if he couldn't wake up though. He rubbed at his left arm. It ached in a way that made him unsure if he actually wanted to wake-up and face the damage there. It might be just a sprain. There was a sudden easing of the tension. Maybe the hallucinogen was wearing off finally. The idiots who'd grabbed him must have bought his carefully crafted persona and believed the drugs would throw him off.
He stared out the window at the odd mix of city scape and medieval town. The deep woods were pulsing with some arcane energy. A sly smile crept over his face. The maze had worked to drop at least one of his pursuers into limbo. The trees nearest the tower looked perky and there was a little yellow bird perched on the briars made of impossible triangles. That was a good sign.
He paced through the room once more, his bootheels making a soothing clacking sound on the stone floor. He considered. He dreamt up an Escher staircase to pace. No sense in not using the dream for at least a little practice. Isolated gravity fields dependent upon the stair runner not on the person, that should work.
Ari swallowed hard as they stepped into the black branches. "The lake looks like a much nicer option."
"Brandon wouldn't have mentioned the woods if the sword really were in the lake."
"Isn't he sort of helpful for a projection?"
"To anyone else, he'd be a bit more of a will-o-wisp. Arthur likes me. He expected me to come find him." Eames stroked Flopsy's head. She was chewing on his shirt now. "I know, lovely. I know. We'll get the sword and be off to the tower."
It was bizarre to see him talking to what was obviously an animated rabbit as though she were real. But there was no denying that she was part of Arthur. "So, why are we getting the sword at all?"
"Because quests need to be completed. Besides, if you're returning power to someone, what better symbol than a weapon?"
Ari's eyes narrowed. She thought about that. "Not just a sword. Excalibur? Or something like it? A sword that gives him dominion?"
"Very good, luv. You're getting the hang of symbolism. Arthur voluntarily hid his weapon. He left his sword hidden in order to appear more helpless. But Flopsy here decided he needed to be protected and set him in a tower."
"Flopsy decided? The rabbit?"
Eames frowned at her. "Don't judge by appearances." He strode into the woods, feet crunching over leaves and twigs. Ari stopped. Parts of him disappeared. "Keep up or you'll be lost."
Ari took his arm. "It's like the girl in the forest illusion."
"Arthur takes his optical illusions very seriously." His lips curled up. "I believe he might actually have gotten an art degree because of it."
"You're pulling my leg." The forest floor crunched like a real forest. The sound made it more foreboding, not less. He didn't answer her. "I don't see Arthur as an artist."
"And yet." Eames gestured to the world around them. Flopsy scowled at Ari. "Don't attack. You're still hurt." The rabbit twitched her nose, but settled back to chewing on the laces of the shit. The little bluebird she cradled in her good paw whistled out a snippet of a Disney villain song that she didn't know. Eames snorted. "Do try not to insult Arthur inside of his own mind. Flopsy is very protective."
Ari blinked. "Right." She was sure there had to be stranger things than over-protective rabbits in her future, but she couldn't quite imagine them yet. There was also the unspoken "stop picking on my lover" in Eames' posture. She slipped her fingers into the strap of Eames pack so that he couldn't lose her in the woods. The trees were dark and tall and she could see brambles just off the little path they were on. She twitched when she noticed the eyes.
Arthur sighed. He conjured up a mirror. It was an ornate full-length frame filled with silvered glass. The filigree around the outside was made of a multitude of faces. He cocked his head at that. Oh, of course. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me the people in my head."
The silver rippled to show only Ari and Eames. They were in the deep woods. A spike of fear ran through him. No, he didn't want them in there. It was dangerous. They could get caught in the spirals. It resisted change though. The drugs made it nearly impossible to make it safer. He banished the mirror with a sharp flick of his wrist.
He strode to the window and looked out over the woods and the city. Small birds were starting to fly in the skies and small furry creatures were bouncing among the brambles that protected the high-rise tower. He pressed a hand to the window. "Please be careful, Eames," he whispered.
Flopsy was getting restless in the sling. "I know, luv," Eames soothed her. There was a slouching presence walking just out of sight. "Brandon, are we going the right way?"
"And why would I tell you if you weren't? What's up with the pet?" The sulky teen came closer.
"We weren't sure what we'd find here."
Brandon looked Ari up and down. "And you thought she'd be helpful as what? Bait?" He lit a cigarette. "She looks just like Emily. Not the best idea to drag around with you."
Eames stilled. "I thought Emily was a blonde."
Brandon turned around to walk backwards. "Now, now, that would be telling, Sir Eames. Cig?" He offered the pack. Eames took one and let him light it. "It's dangerous in the wild wood. Himself would never be the same if I let you fall into a trap." His smile was edged with teeth that suddenly seemed sharper.
The bluebird chirped out a snippet of song that teased the edges of Eames' memory. "I would so like to trust you, Lovely."
Brandon laughed darkly. He deftly maneuvered between Eames and Ari. He swept her into something that would resemble a waltz if she weren't so obviously terrified. Brandon's eyes fixed on Eames as he swung her around. He leaned to whisper into her ear while maintaining eye contact. "No one to save you, nibblet. You don't belong in the Wild Wood."
Ari stumbled as he released her. "You don't scare me," she fairly hissed.
"She's funny." Brandon slouched closer to Eames. He smelled of petrol and tobacco and blood and gunpowder. "She'd be a lovely picture in red." He herded Eames away from a clump of brambles with a delicate turn to make them face to face again. "You don't belong in the Wild Wood," he told Eames.
"And yet, I need to find something important here."
"Lady F, help me out here." The projection stroked the rabbit's head. She patted his hand with her good paw. "I suppose," he muttered. He pulled a gun out of his pocket and handed it to Eames. "You're gonna need that."
"Where do I need to go?" Eames asked. He put the gun in his belt.
"Where would you store a famous sword that grants unlimited power?" Brandon pulled Eames in for a quick rough kiss. "Be careful, you fucking idiot. I've got to go." He was in the shadows and out of sight a moment later.
"What the everloving fuck was that?" Ari demanded.
"A projection," Eames said calmly. "Arthur's subconscious doesn't know you as well as I do."
"So, he's what? A manifestation of Arthur's inability to trust me?"
Eames looked at her for a long moment. She calmed herself and stared back at him. There was something unreadable in his eyes. "Ari, if Arthur didn't trust you and me, he'd have killed you and popped you out of the dream right then. But Brandon is right. You don't belong in the Wild Wood."
"I'm not just going to stay here. The bushes have eyes."
"And ears, I'm sure. Mouths too. Hungry ones with sharp teeth." Eames smirked. "Arthur's projections are all around us and you're just seeing eyes. Think, Ari. He's drugged. He's in pain. He's nervous. And he may not know that we're here. Where is his weapon?"
She stepped closer to the forger. The trees were sentient, not part of the landscape. "It's a living forest," she whispered. "Dryads, and wolves, and weasels." She took Eames' arm. The tree closest to her roused itself to open its eyes.
"Sir Knight," it greeted in a thin, dry, voice.
"Sir Tree." Eames inclined his head. "Please forgive my squire. She's not traveled far beyond the borders of her village before and knows nothing of the world."
The tree rustled, its maple syrup eyes studied her. "A puny child. I expect you'll train her up." He sniffed. "Doesn't even know that the prince is the land?"
"We've not started her mythology and symbolism training yet," he apologized.
The tree hrumphed. "Lady Flopsy, do you wish them to gain entrance?"
Ari turned to look at the little pink rabbit. She raised her good paw and waved toward the inner forest. The tree bent toward her. "As you wish, m'lady." The forest shifted to a two dimensional optical illusion. Eames swallowed hard, but stepped through the compressed forest into a clearing. She followed quickly before the forest snapped back into itself. The clearing was small, with soft green grass and a filter of sunlight through the leaves that fell onto a ring of stones. The forest around them was dark and deep, but felt more like a hug than a warning.
Eames studied the stones. "Flopsy?" The rabbit was struggling to get out of the sling. Eames carefully placed the bluebird on his shoulder. Ari bit her lip. He set the injured rabbit on the ground and she waddled awkwardly into the circle. She leaned heavily on the center stone. There was a chime of bells that felt and sounded like a cathedral. The light filter turned to a soft blue. Suspended between the stones, point up, was a sword of gleaming metal and light. Ari's breath caught.
Excalibur was beautiful.
Eames' hand lifted. "I come as trusted vassal to Arthur. I lift this sword to return to my liege," he announced. The sword shifted slowly, until the handle rested in Eames' palm. He slid the sword into the sheath at his waist. He put a hand over his heart. "Thank you." The light left, making the clearing cold. Ari shivered, while Eames collected Flopsy back into the pouch. She leaned against one of the trees, shaking.
"Boo," a voice said by her ear. She jumped forward and away from the threat into a roll the way Arthur had drilled her. Brandon laughed at her. "Aren't you just the cutest little thing? Thinking you can get away from me."
"What is wrong with you?" she demanded.
Brandon just took a puff off of his cigarette. "Figured out the sword. Sweet talked a tree. Too bad you can't do it again." He looked up at the sky. It was turning a firey pink. "Himself is getting frustrated up in his tower. These woods weren't meant for you. Her maybe, but not you."
"Ari," Eames said. She glared at him. "Which is the quickest path out? I doubt it will fold again."
"No, no." Brandon paced a bit. "You sure I can't kill her?"
"I need her for bait, luv."
Oh, he would pay for that when they got topside. "Eames," she hissed.
"Right. Well, then, the lake is safest. Just don't go swimming." Brandon swung himself up into a tree. "You could stick here with me until the drugs run out."
Eames chuckled. "You're a dear, but Arthur's waiting."
Brandon settled into the crook of a branch, looking for all the world as though he were going to sleep there. Eames gathered Ari with an arm. "Straight ahead and don't look back." Ari started to turn, but Eames caught her chin and forced her head forward.
"Stand tall, look forward and keep your mind firmly on reaching the lake. Do not look to the left or right. Do not listen to any sounds you here. And for the love of all that's holy, don't look back or the trap will be sprung."
Ari swallowed hard.
The boat moored at the dock was crimson and gold with blue details and a mermaid that looked like Mal Cobb. Eames swallowed hard and took a breath. He stood with one foot on the dock, the other on deck to usher Ari into the boat. She stood uneasily on the deck, one hand on the mast. Eames stepped on and an unfelt wind filled the sail. They were off and away from the dock before he could change his mind. He went to the wheel.
They were heading toward a rocky shore over which the high-rise tower loomed. Tangled brambles surrounded it. Ari slid down to sit on the deck, arms around her knees. "I don't understand what is happening. How can Arthur be creating this sort of madness?"
Eames studied her. "Are you frightened or frustrated?"
She was quiet. "Frightened. Is Brandon just a projection or is he some part of Arthur that I don't usually see? You seemed to know him?"
Eames leaned against the side of the boat. He cradled Flopsy and the bluebird close to his heart. "Brandon was real in a way. He's more of when than who. When Arthur came out of the dream den as a teenager, he was feral. That's what Mal says when asked." The mermaid shifted with a wooden creak. Eames froze. "She saved him. Channelled his energy into research and point and dragged him into the real world." The mermaid moved again and then, she was sitting on the prow as opposed to decorating it. Her tail was irridescent.
"Telling tales, mon cher?" she purred. She flipped her fin. Her hair was an impossible tangle of curls and knots. "Are they your secrets to share?"
"She needs to know."
Ari had frozen, staring at the new projection. "Mrs. Cobb," she said evenly.
The mermaid laughed, a strangely grating sound, like a grinding engine. "Non, petite. I am Mal." The mermaid studied Ari for a long moment. "She is a child, mon cher. Children have no place dreaming. They will not live."
"She is a brilliant architect. And she has the potential to become an extractor we think."
Mal tossed her curls. "She will never be as good at it as I am."
"Of course not." Eames smiled at her. He kissed her hand and she giggled at him. "None will ever surpass the great Malorie Cobb."
"And what do you seek, petite?" she asked Ari.
"Arthur. They hurt him and they put him down here and we're going to bring him out."
Mal's eyes flashed. "Child."
Eames stepped between them. Arthur's mind rarely hurt him. "I seek to return Excalibur to its proper hand."
The mermaid, less Mal and more strange creature studied him. She nodded once. "Of course, Sir Eames. I will lead you to the port. The brambles do not cover all entrances." She smiled prettily and dove off the side like a scuba diver. Eames steered after her while Ari clambered up the side to look out over the water. She looked down below them and gulped.
"There are monsters down there."
"You worry too much," Brandon said. He was smoking. Arthur's fingers itched for the remembered pleasure of nicotine.
"What are you talking about?" He settled down next to the ghost of his former self. How long had he been down here anyway? He rubbed at his eyes. Brandon's legs hung over the back of the sofa and his eyes stared up at the smoke that drifted from his mouth.
"Your boy's gonna be just fine. He knows you. Your little bit of fluff might be a little damaged though."
Arthur stole the cigarette for a puff, then handed it back. "My brain isn't exactly the coziest place," he conceded. "You've seen them? They're okay?"
Brandon frowned. "Course they are. Now, tell me you've tasted the little bit."
"Just a kiss in the dreamscape. Pretty sure she's not into boys anyway. Besides, Eames can be the biggest bitch in the world if he gets jealous."
"And you're all sweetness and light. What's there to do around here?"
"Shit all." Arthur sighed. "I've been playing with gravity."
"I've always wanted to walk on the moon."
Arthur concentrated. The drugs were weakening. The floor transformed into a grey hilly world. "Let's do that then."
The cavern they floated into was beautiful. That was the only word for it. Crystals sprouted from every part of the walls. Light glittered and fractured in firelike streams on the water. Ari gasped at it. Carefully placed torches lit the room with stunning thought. The mermaid splashed in the water and shards of light followed her.
Eames seemed unimpressed by the display. His eyes were fixed on the shore where a scattering of gold bricks lay among the sand. Loose pearls and jewels were strewn across the sand. Ari stood gaping at it all until she forced her mouth the close. "You will have to find your way from here, Sir Eames. Squire." The mermaid's lip curled when she addressed Ari. Then, she was gone, deep under the water with a quick flip.
Eames docked the ship.
"Arthur doesn't actually like me, does he?" Ari asked. She bit her lip.
"Arthur likes you. He doesn't trust you yet. He doesn't trust anyone much. Even fewer now that Mal's gone." Eames stroked Flopsy's head. "Don't take it personally, luv. It's taken me more than a decade to be trusted. He's known you only about a year. And he's already shown you his favorite paradoxes."
He helped her off of the boat. As they both stood on the pier, the boat slid away from them. Eames scowled at it.
"No looking back, you said in the wild wood. What would have happened?"
"They would have torn you limb from limb."
Ari picked up a pearl from the sand. It was large and dark with a showroom shine on it. "And where we going?"
"To Arthur." Eames gestured toward the staircase. It spiraled down into the a shimmering darkness. Ari gulped. She wrapped her fingers in Eames' belt. He smiled wryly at her. "Don't think that using me for a shield will work, luv," he warned her.
Then, he started down the spiral staircase. Light reflected and played between crystal walls until Ari was dizzy with rainbows and sparkling. It was disorienting and scintillating and words she couldn't even form while remembering how to breathe. It was like being caught in a blender. She realized belatedly that there were mirror shards mixed in with the light, showing her her own face with wide eyes and red lips. She touched her cheek and came away with blood on her fingers. Eventually, the stairs stopped and the hallway shifted so abruptly that she stumbled into the wall.
Eames took a deep breath, no longer feeling as though his chest were caught in a vice. The door in front of him was a rough wooden form that didn't fit in with the sleek, modern hallway. Ari stood next to him, blood on her cheeks and arm. She was breathing heavily. Flopsy reached toward the door and Eames leaned forward until she could touch the wood. The door shimmered and shifted into a proper door for the hall. Eames opened it.
He stepped through into the king's chamber. A gyroscopic set of loops protected a platform at the center of the room. There was a throne of gold and red. Arthur was draped over it like a teenager. Arthur rolled to his feet with a relieved smile. He gestured with a hand and the rings aligned and folded flat, like the rings around Saturn. Eames walked across them, Ari a step behind.
Eames bowed to Arthur. He unbuckled his sword and offered it across his arm. Arthur drew the sword. "Rise, Sir Eames, and answer this, which is more powerful, the sword or the sheath?"
"The sheath, for it stands for peace and healing."
Arthur smiled. He strapped the sword around his own waist before reaching for the tiny bluebird on Eames' shoulder. He kissed the little bird. The bird was covered with a glow of warmth that Eames wanted to sink into. When it dissipated the bird was healed, but Arthur had developed a black eye. There was blood the cuff of his shirt. Arthur pressed a quick kiss to Eames' forehead before he lifted Flopsy into his arms.
He pulled black thread from his pocket and sewed the cartoon bunny's wounds closed. He hugged her to his chest like a teddy bear. Despite her injuries, she looked happy as she hung from his arm, feet bouncing slightly. Arthur traced the cuts on Ari's cheek. "Which one caught you?"
"The mirrors in the stairwell."
Arthur grimaced. "I'm sorry you had to face part of yourself, Squire Ari."
Brandon stepped from the shadows behind her. Eames turned to catch his wrist. "Arthur can deal with this on his own, Luv."
The projection's teeth were sharp and white barred in something that was not a smile. "Arthur?"
"I'll take care of them, Brandon." Arthur smiled at his projection. "Do you want to play in the rings?"
The young man perked up. Arthur set the rings moving around them again and Brandon ran up one of them, heedless of the fact that he was now upside down. "Arthur?" Ari's voice was breathy.
"I cannot heal you. I'm sorry. Let's get out of here."
Eames pulled the gun that Brandon had handed him. Arthur laughed as he took it. He shot Ari without saying another word. He kissed Eames gently before shooting him as well.
Ari woke, hand going to her face. There was no damage there and her arm was fine. The men they'd displaced were still insensible on the floor. Eames woke a moment later. His head turned to Arthur immediately. Arthur's hand reached for the blindfold on his face. Eames caught his hand. He untangled the line and removed the needle. "Let me, Darling. Ari, you'll need to pull one of the pillowcases to use as a sling." Eames cut Arthur free of his restraints.
Arthur whined in the back of his throat. "Not just a sprain then," he managed. "Shit. I think it might be broken."
Eames ran his hand up Arthur's arm with professional ease. "Broken forearm, I expect."
"Wonderful. How bad is my eye?"
"Turning a beautiful shade of yellow-purple."
"I'm going to have to pretend that I was mugged aren't I?"
Ari snorted. "What are we going to do with these two?"
"Untie them. They're not going to wake up. We'll leave them on the bed with a vial of the somnacin they were using." Arthur sat up slowly as Eames splinted his arm with a magazine and the remnants of rope. Ari helped fashion a sling.
"The Little Prince?" Eames asked. The coat Arthur had been wearing in the dream was distinctive.
"I was reading it to James over the phone a few nights ago. Ribs too, I think. Crap."
"You can be mugged or I smuggled you out of your abusive home. Your choice, but you'll need an x-ray or two. I don't want your arm badly set."
"Right. Crap. Father can pay for this shit then. I'll make sure the bills go to him." Arthur scowled at the men on the floor. "Enjoy your nightmares, you stupid shits. Didn't even fucking bother to research your client."
"Now, luv, not everyone is as clever as my Arthur."
Arthur huffed out a laugh. "Let's get them back onto the bed. We'll take the PASIV, since they weren't using it properly. Leave the vials. And a needle. Let them think they fried themselves."
Ari bit on her nail. Arthur was yelling at someone on the phone in what she thought was Russian. Eames was wincing in a way that made her want to know what he'd just heard. Arthur turned off his phone. "Not nearly as satisfying as slamming down the receiver," Arthur muttered. He settled down gingerly on the loveseat. The suite he'd found them was lovely, but she wasn't sure if the job was still on or not.
"And how is father-dearest?" Eames said mildly.
Ari blinked. Arthur'd been talking to his father?
"He insists that he knows best. Hates you with a passion, but was relieved to know that he didn't actually have to pay the two idiots he hired. He believes that you are holding me back from my true potential. And he'll have a contract over here that he wants me to take in exchange for another year without his interference."
"When will he learn to just bribe you like everyone else?"
Arthur snorted. "Father still believes I'm twelve and that we're stuck inside a massive dream and we're studying the effects of limbo on the mind every time we go down to dream."
Eames blinked at that. "Has your deadpan gotten better? I didn't think it was possible."
"No, it's the truth. Someone forgot to lock the cage door behind him and he's quite happily creating an empire in Eastern Europe. I am going to take those pain pills I fought against and go to sleep now." He put out his hand and Eames gave him two of the pills. "Eames."
"You're only getting prescribed doses, Arthur."
Their eyes met for a long moment. Arthur sighed. He kissed Eames gently. "I'm sorry you were scared. Do some damage control with Ari and then come lie down with me."
Eames kissed Arthur's forehead. "Go to sleep, Mr. Darling."
Arthur retired to his room. Ari's eyes narrowed. "Damage control? I'd blame the pain, but it's Arthur."
Eames settled down on the couch with a glass of scotch. He swirled the drink in the tumbler. "Arthur is the son of a rather influential person in dreamshare. They have been fighting for years. It got worse when Arthur decided that he and I were going to be lovers."
It was blunter than Ari expected, but it made a certain amount of sense. "Which explains why Arthur's mad with his father, but not what he meant by damage?"
"He's worried that you'll be frightened of him because of what you saw today."
Ari was still. "Brandon? The animated trees? His absolutely adorable bunny?"
"All of that. Or whatever he's afraid you had to face on the stairs. What did you see that left you bleeding?"
"Shards of light and bits and pieces of my own face reflected back. There wasn't anything in particular. But you can feel free to explain the wild wood or Brandon or why Arthur was sure that his attackers wouldn't wake up."
Eames took a breath. "Arthur learned how to put someone into a nightmare years ago. How to drop someone into their own subconscious with the wolves following them for eternity. There were three people in the world who could pull it off and all three of them swore that no one else would be taught the trick. One of them is in a coma. One of them is dead. Arthur is the last." He looked down into his drink, gathering his thoughts. "You should never corner our Arthur, Ari. He's downright vicious."
Ari swallowed. "Did he... Who were the others?"
Eames' lips thinned into a parody of a smile. "Mal, of course. The last? I've never found out."
"That, my dear, you will have to figure out." Eames stood. "Now, I'm going to tuck him in. I'll see you in the morning."
He smiled at her before entering the bedroom. Ari picked up his drink and took a sip. It tasted suspiciously like tea. She laughed a bit to herself before she poured it out in the sink. Nothing was ever what it seemed with dreamers.
Arthur was still awake. "And did you soothe her fears?"
"She is not afraid of you, love."
"Should be." His eyes were drooping.
Eames laid down next to him. "Go to sleep, Arthur. I have the watch."
A smile twitched on Arthur's mouth. "We should send her to meet my mother."
"I thought you liked her?"
He huffed out a laugh and let his eyes close. Eames stroked through the dark hair. He pulled a marker from his pocket and started to decorate Arthur's cast in paisley.
Back to the Inception Bedroom